An Inwood fire engine, seen Oct. 22, 2016, honors Joseph...

An Inwood fire engine, seen Oct. 22, 2016, honors Joseph Sanford Jr., who died in the line of duty in December 2014. Credit: Steven Sunshine

Inwood firefighters will never know how long former assistant chief Joseph Sanford Jr. was alone and unconscious in a basement full of water during a December 2014 house fire in Woodmere.

Now, nearly three years after his death, the fire district has received a federal grant to purchase breathing packs with new technology that alerts other firefighters when one of their colleagues isn’t moving.

“We may have been able to find him sooner and prevent further injury,” Inwood Fire District manager Joe Ruvolo said.

The department has been leasing the equipment for the past year. The $230,000 grant, from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, will allow the department to pay off the lease and buy the 41 breathing units with masks and packs, as well as 82 air bottles.

Sanford, a 17-year veteran, had gone into a Woodmere blaze without giving the incident commander his “accountability tag” — an ID used to track which firefighters are in burning buildings — and was in the home when the first floor collapsed, a state report found.

“To this day, we don’t actually know how long he was in the basement alone,” Ruvolo said.

Sanford, who was 43 and married with three children, had been wearing a 15-year-old breathing unit that was up to standards at the time, Ruvolo said.

Sanford also did not have a necessary assigned partner while in the structure, which was being renovated, and the fire scene commander was later surprised that he had even gone inside, the state report found.

Sanford wasn’t reported missing when firefighters were forced to evacuate and was later discovered facedown in 18 inches of water and partially covered by furniture. His cause of death was complications of a near-drowning. The state issued four citations to the department for violations stemming from the fatal fire. Ruvolo said they have since been corrected.

“The new technology tells us when a firefighter is no longer moving around,” he said. “If he’s not moving, he may need help.”

The department had been looking into replacing its breathing units before Sanford’s death, but the tragedy sped up the timeline. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said in a joint statement that the new equipment “could help prevent similar tragedies in the future by locating any firefighters who may be trapped in a blaze.”

The grant application was written by Mineola-based Grant Guys. Christopher McGrath, a Garden City attorney representing Sanford’s family in an ongoing wrongful death lawsuit filed against the Woodmere homeowners and the contractors who were renovating the property, said the new equipment “is exactly what Joe Sanford would want and certainly what his wife wants.”

Local officials have sought to honor Sanford after his death. He was posthumously promoted to chief, and an Inwood street was named after him in October. Schumer and Hempstead Town Supervisor Anthony Santino are seeking to rename a channel near the Inwood Marina for him.

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